|Ahmed and Connor secured Big Ten team titles for the Badgers as part of 1-2-3 sweeps of the 5000 meters both indoors (above) and outdoors in 2014.
May 29, 2014
BY MIKE LUCAS
MADISON, Wis. -- Mohammed Ahmed was handed a printout of a story from four years ago that documented his fourth-place finish in the 10,000 meters at the 2010 NCAA Outdoor Championships. Highlighting the copy was a photo insert of a rail-thin, bespectacled Ahmed racing for the Badgers.
After glancing at the picture and chuckling, he confirmed, “That’s me … I was young … 19 years old … I remember that it was rainy the whole day to the point of my race. I remember that I was nervous. And I remember I felt really bad the first half of the race and I almost kind of gave up.”
Instead of quitting -- and he said that he was “hurting” for the first 20 laps -- he closed like a champion. He ran the final 800 meters in 2:07.47, which included the second-fastest final lap of anyone in the field. He ran 1:00.81 over the final 400 meters and finished in a time of 28:57.44.
By doing so, he earned All-America recognition and put a fitting exclamation point on a promising freshman season at Wisconsin. Along with winning the 10K at the Big Ten outdoor meet (29:03.71), he was also an All-American in cross country after placing 30th at nationals.
The key word has always been “promise” for Ahmed, who was born in Mogadishu, Somalia, and moved at the age of 11 with his family to St. Catharines, Ontario, where he was a three-time Canadian junior champion. After showing so much promise, he admitted, there was the promise of so much more.
Especially after he ran fourth in that NCAA 10K on June 11, 2010.
“When I came here,” said Ahmed, now 23 and closing out his fifth year of eligibility, “I wanted to win team titles but I also wanted to win individual titles and I thought I’d have at least some at this point. But on the national stage, I don’t think I’ve performed up to my potential.”
It was a candid assessment from an accomplished international competitor.
“I’ve had great moments here,” said Ahmed, making sure no one mistook his sentiments. “I’ve made an Olympic team (in 2012). I was ninth in the world (at the 2013 world championships). We’ve won a national title as a team (2011 in cross country). And we’ve won a bunch of Big Ten titles.
“But this is my last season and my last races for the University of Wisconsin and I want to deliver. Mick (Byrne) has never had a national champion (in a distance event). He brought me here, he believed in me, and I’d like to do it for him; I’d like to do it for me and I’d like to do it for Wisconsin.”
• • • •
Under the stopwatch vigilance of Byrne, the UW director of track and cross country, Ahmed and teammate Reed Connor went through a 30-minute workout late Sunday afternoon in preparation for the NCAA West Preliminary Round (Thursday-Saturday) in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
“I really enjoy training with Reed,” Ahmed said. “Once we get on the track, we’re focused.”
Both will have the same focal point on Saturday when they compete in the 5000 meters -- Ahmed as the No. 3 seed, Connor as the No. 11. Ahmed will double and also run in Thursday’s 10K. Both have a firm understanding of what it’s going to take to advance to the NCAA championships in Eugene, Oregon.
“I’ve done it before and I’m 2-for-2 in making it to nationals, so this will be my third go at it,” said Connor, who was sixth last year in the 5000 meters and 16th in 2011. “It’s really about remembering that this is a normal meet and everyone has got the same pressure.
“If you can go out there and focus on the things that we do every day on the track, you’ll walk away satisfied. That’s what you always look to do as a Badger – just give your all. Mick is a great coach and he gets us ready for these meets.”
While a national title and All-America accolades for the top eight finishers will be on the line at the finals in Eugene, a 12th-place finish is as good as a first-place showing at this weekend’s NCAA West Preliminary Round. The top 12 finishers in each event will join the top 12 from the East Region to form the field for next month’s NCAA championships.
At the 2013 preliminary round in Austin, Texas, the Badgers qualified two runners in the 5K: Connor, who was ninth overall; and senior Maverick Darling, who was 10th. (Ahmed was redshirting.) Darling went on to place fourth in the nationals. He was the top finishing American in the race.
Connor, meanwhile, got to the podium in track for the first time in his UW career.
“I felt like I could have done better (last year),” Connor said. “It’s a different field every year and I would say that there are a lot more competitors this year; it’s the most loaded event out there. Maybe sixth place is as good as I’ll ever get.
|“I was absolutely blown away by what we had done,” Connor said of UW’s 1-2-3 sweeps of the Big Ten 10K and 5K. “I’m pretty sure any statistics class would tell you that it was not going to happen.”
“But I know that I belonged in that pack last year and I’m going to put myself on the spot to be with those (top) guys and hope for the best. My times are better this year, my speed is there and everything is looking good. This is what I came here to do five years ago and I’m still doing it.”
So he was thinking, “Why not save the best for last?”
He was also thinking, “As long as I can go out there and be Badger Tough …”
Connor was just that at the Big Ten outdoor championships in Wisconsin’s 1-2-3 sweeps of the 10K (which he won in a personal best time of 29:06.10) and the 5K (in which he was second Ahmed). The latter event catapulted the Badgers to the team title in West Lafayette, Indiana.
“Before the (5K) race, I remember telling the guys, ‘Hey, look, it’s probably statistically impossible to do this three times in a row,”’ he said, referencing the odds on sweeping the 10K and 5K outdoors after UW’s 1-2-3 sweep of the 5K that propelled the Badgers to the team championship at the conference indoor meet in February.
“I also said to them, ‘It’s athletics and anything can happen but we just need to focus on fighting for every point that we can get. If that’s one guy getting first and the rest of us going 3, 4 and 5, whatever it is, we have to do whatever we can do get as many points as possible.”’
Yet the Badgers pulled it off with Malachy Schrobilgen taking third behind Ahmed and Connor. “It was a complete shock, I was absolutely blown away by what we had done,” said Connor, a senior from Houston. “I’m pretty sure any statistics class would tell you that it was not going to happen.”
But he never lost faith in himself or his teammates. “That’s why everybody loves athletics,” he said. “And it just goes to show that you can’t write a book as good as a meet is scripted. Mentally, you can always give that extra effort. That’s what Badger Tough is for me.”
It would be tough, Connor suggested, if not impossible to outdistance Ahmed when everything is clicking for him. “Sometimes,” he said, “Mo just has one of those days where he’s ninth in the world or 18th at the Olympics and that is a little bit out of my reach.”
But he’ll follow his lead as far as he can. Ahmed knows where he wants it all to lead. But, first, he has to take care of business in the prelims. “It’s all about qualifying and not winning this week,” Ahmed said. “Everybody is going to be looking at each other and that’s what I’m going to be doing, too.”
He will be sizing up the field for potentially one or two finishing kicks at nationals.
“I want to deliver,” Ahmed said. And it sounded more like a promise now than a wish.